Twenty-nine members of a religious doomsday sect, including an 16-month-old baby, are hiding in a snow-covered cave in the Penza region, refusing to come out as they wait for the end of the world next May, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The sect members, who liken tax identification numbers to the apocalyptic sign of the beast, are threatening to blow themselves up if authorities storm the cave, located near the village of Nikolskoye, 100 kilometers southeast of Penza, regional prosecutor’s office spokeswoman Tatyana Ostrovskaya said by telephone.
The leader of the sect was not in the cave, national media reported.
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Steam could be seen rising from a hole in thick snow in footage shown Wednesday on NTV television. Police are guarding the cave to prevent anyone else from joining them, Ostrovskaya said.
Authorities estimate that the zealots have been in the cave for two weeks, prompting concerns for the health of the four children hiding out. Attempts to coax them out of the cave or at least to release the children have been unsuccessful as the sect members have taken a vow of silence, Ostrovskaya said.
“They are ordinary Christians,” Father Georgy, a local priest, told NTV while standing near the cave. “They just don’t accept [tax identification numbers] and passports. They say the church did this and that wrong and that the end of the world is near.”
Gunshots were fired into the air from the cave when Father Georgy and police tried to approach, NTV reported.
The government and the Russian Orthodox Church have complained repeatedly about the rise of sects since the fall of the Soviet Union. The opening of the Iron Curtain provided a hospitable climate for religious movements such as the Moonies and the Scientologists.
The messianic Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released anthrax in Tokyo in 1993 and Sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, recruited hundreds of people across Russia and sought to acquire various weapons in Russia. The cult actively recruited top Russian scientists and technical experts in order to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a 1995 U.S. Senate report.
A former traffic cop who claims he is Jesus is the spiritual leader of some 5,000 disciples in Siberia.
The sect members in the Penza cave are followers of 43-year-old Pyotr Kuznetsov, who moved to Nikolskoye last year claiming to head up the true Russian Orthodox Church, said Alevtina Volchkova, chief prosecutor of the region’s Bekovsky district, where the village is located, the Regnum news agency reported.
“They say the current Russian Orthodox Church is commercialized,” Volchkova was quoted as saying. “The church has its own tax code and carries out commercial activities, so [the sect claims to] represent the real Russian Orthodox Church.”
Dozens of people from across the nation and from former Soviet republics came to the village to join the group, Ostrovskaya said.
“They came, they came, they came,” elderly Nikolskoye resident Galina Chepurnova told Rossia television Wednesday. “They sang, they sang, they sang.”
Last year the group built a prayer house in Nikolskoye, and several months ago members began preparing the cave 500 meters outside the village, national media reported. Members began storing enough petrol, kerosene and food to last until May, and before moving in, they expanded the cave and reinforced the roof, she said.
“Their leader — or Father Pyotr, as they call him — says their supplies include a half a ton of honey and a lot of jam,” Volchkova told Regnum.
Followers did not work, children in the sect were not allowed to go to school, and members were banned from speaking to their relatives, NTV reported.
When the group disappeared from the area, “we thought they had gone away. But it seems they didn’t,” Volchkova said in televised comments.
Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation in connection with the formation of an illegal sect, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.
The hideaway was only discovered when the daughter of one of the sect members turned up in Nikolskoye, and Kuznetsov — who did not go into the cave himself — squealed under pressure from investigators, Izvestia reported Wednesday.
“He said they should not be disturbed, that they are chosen ones and nobody else is allowed to get in the cave,” a law enforcement source told Izvestia.
Kuznetsov’s whereabouts were unknown as of Wednesday, NTV reported.
Archbishop Filaret of the Penza and Kuznetsk dioceses said in a statement published on the regional government’s web site that he was “deeply grieved” to hear that “a group of people who are outside the church of God … are preparing themselves for the second coming of Christ.”
Ostrovskaya refused to say if there was any plan to storm the cave, and the Interior Ministry’s Penza region branch referred all questions to prosecutors.